It Takes Practice

Jason Foumberg at the 102nd College Art Association conference in Chicago

Left: The panel session for “Exhibiting Socially Engaged Art.” Right: Dieter Roelstraete, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. (Photos: Jason Foumberg)

EVER WONDER why so many art and art history professors are leftist liberals? No, that’s not the setup for a joke. The answer may become clearer if I rephrase the question: What does social activism have to do with art and with teaching? Education breeds equality. (That’s the goal, anyway.) By that metric, an academic convention of teaching artists and art historians—the annual College Art Association conference—should be as enlightening as a Zen retreat. Late the week before last, CAA members convened in Chicago for the 102nd edition, armed to tackle the big questions.

While an ice storm barred many East Coasters from boarding their planes—the same thing happened three years ago, the last time the CAA descended on Chicago—an aura of disenchantment was cast over the Windy City’s signature brand of “social practice,” a type of community activism in the guise of art. “When is Theaster Gates acting as a real-estate developer?” pondered the Renaissance Society’s Hamza Walker. “I’m worried about the pressure on artists to be social providers,” ranted Shannon Stratton from Threewalls. “There are times when you have to be a bad teacher,” a tenured art professor publicly confessed. Is social practice deskilling our artists, a curator asked me in a hotel hallway; is it killing connoisseurship?

Left: Jacob Proctor, curator at the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, with artist Zachary Cahill. Right: Artist and writer Gregory Sholette with curator Olga Kopenkina. (Photos: Jason Foumberg)

By the end of the conference on Saturday, you could hear the minds of skeptics opening like so many elevator doors. It turns out that a good antidote to doubt is hearing an artist speak. A panel discussion on “Identity Politics: Then and Now” jarred awake a morning audience. CAA accommodates an extraordinarily diverse offering of topics, from medieval to new media art, but everyone agrees on one thing: We must learn from the past. The recent past of identity politics provided a brilliant example, with Gregg Bordowitz at the helm of the evolving revolution. “Stop trying to be radical. Stop privileging ‘radicality’ as a term. The radicals do it out of necessity. What is your necessity?” Bordowitz rhetorically asked the audience.

Bordowitz was responding to Joan Kee’s question, “How can an artist be controversial today?” It’s a question on many locals’ minds. Just last month, the Block Museum at Northwestern University issued dozens of answers by artists, writers, and educators to the question, “What is revolutionary art now?” in conjunction with its new exhibition, “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929–1940.”

“We live in a depressing moment right now,” said MCA curator Dieter Roelstraete on the identity politics panel; we are reduced to remembering the radical art of the past. “The problems don’t go away,” he said. Kee agreed, noting how “the same questions are asked over and again” in classrooms and artworks, which she chalked up to “intellectual laziness.” Even though Bordowitz dissented (“I don’t experience the repetition. There’s been nothing but production and sideways moves”), art history’s eternal return echoed throughout the conference halls: “We need to start doing a better job of learning from the struggles of the past,” said artist Laurel Ptak in her workshop “Wages for Facebook,” which was inspired by the 1972 feminist campaign “Wages for Housework.” It was a profound statement to make in a city with a rich history of labor activism. A couple days later, a faculty strike for better wages closed the University of Illinois at Chicago for the first time ever.

Left: Art historian Lisa Corrin. Right: At “The Fifth Dimension” at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. (Photos: Jason Foumberg)

By the time of Friday’s all-star social practice panel, “Exhibiting Socially Engaged Art: A Chicago Case Study,” cochaired by Mary Jane Jacob and Pablo Helguera, artists were making provocative declarations left and right. Theaster Gates seemed at home behind a podium: “Simply lead your life and do what you believe in. It’s completely possible that no one will care.” Then the panelists pulled a performative move and left their stage for the Q&A portion, urging the audience to come forward. “I’m an artist,” said Michael Rakowitz. “I decided not to be a social worker or a politician. People still want art in war zones.” No one disagreed.

Sometimes the past comes rushing back like a favorite track from the 1980s. “O Superman” was the revival anthem of the conference, with two artists on separate occasions using Laurie Anderson’s 1981 hit as lecture performance. For her talk, painter Dana DeGiulio turned the song into a PowerPoint music video while she danced behind the podium. A few days later, Karl Holmqvist performed the song a cappella for his contribution to the group exhibition “The Fifth Dimension” at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. “Hi, I’m not home right now, but if you’d like to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone,” recited Holmqvist in an eerie monotony. The audience was enrapt, and after the performance DJ Dieter Roelstraete opened his evening’s set with Anderson’s catchy tune.

Left: Artist Phyllis Bramson. Right: Dealer Rhona Hoffman with critic Daniel Quiles. (Photos: Jason Foumberg)

Left: Artist Tony Lewis. Right: Curator Claudine Ise with artist Deb Sokolow. (Photos: Jason Foumberg)

Left: National Gallery of Art curator James Meyer with art historian Huey Copeland at a party for the University of Chicago Press. Right: Art historians Richard Meyer and Andrew Uroski at a party for the University of Chicago Press.